The author of The Garden of Small Beginnings returns with a hilarious and poignant new novel about four families, their neighborhood carpool, and the affair that changes everything.
At any given moment in other people's houses, you can find...repressed hopes and dreams...moments of unexpected joy...someone making love on the floor to a man who is most definitely not her husband...
As the longtime local carpool mom, Frances Bloom is sometimes an unwilling witness to her neighbors' private lives. She knows her cousin is hiding her desire for another baby from her spouse, Bill Horton's wife is mysteriously missing, and now this...
After the shock of seeing Anne Porter in all her extramarital glory, Frances vows to stay in her own lane. But that's a notion easier said than done when Anne's husband throws her out a couple of days later. The repercussions of the affair reverberate through the four carpool families--and Frances finds herself navigating a moral minefield that could make or break a marriage.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was amazing how many children you could fit in a minivan, if you tessellated carefully and maintained only the most basic level of safety. Four in the very back, two of whom were painfully wedged in the space normally afforded to one child. A single lap belt over those two, a choice both illegal and stupid, but there you go-and thank goodness they were skinny. Frances Bloom always had this vague belief that, in the event of an accident, the pressure of all those little bodies would hold them in place. Ten seconds with a physicist would have cleared that up, but she didn't know any; and seeing as she rarely made it above twenty mph in traffic, she might have been right. She was a careful driver, especially with other people's kids in the car, and so far she hadn't needed to put her nutball theory to the test.
In the middle, the two littlest ones sat securely in actual car seats. And, next to her in the front, holding sway over the CD player with the attention to power and detail only a teenager could wield, her eldest daughter, Ava. Seven children, the genetic arsenal of four families. One big crash and the entire neighborhood would have had funeral scheduling issues. Not that it was a joking matter, of course. Frances just had these thoughts, what could you do? Rather than fight them and run the risk that they'd deepen her wrinkles, she just let the buggers run.
She'd been doing this carpool for too long, she thought. It probably wasn't a good sign that a car crash sounded like just one of several options, rather than something to be avoided. But honestly, how many times could you break up a fight over the CD player, or who had to sit in the middle, or whether they could watch a DVD, which they couldn't-and never could have, even before the in-car machine broke. When it was a full house, like this morning, it got so raucous that a tribe of howler monkeys would have fallen silent in awed appreciation. Mind you, these were professional children, the offspring of creative people and deep thinkers, who'd marveled over them as babies, encouraged them to express themselves as toddlers, and wished they'd been more consistent and mean to them now that they were old enough to sass back.
In the far backseat she had the two sibling children of her neighbors Anne and Charlie Porter: Kate and Theo. Lovely names, less than lovely children. Kate, six, specialized in the surprise attack, and often sat silently through the entire trip, rousing herself only to shove her brother viciously out of the van at the other end. Theo, nearly ten, never saw it coming. It wasn't that he was thick, per se, it was just that he never saw it coming. Theo himself preferred a full-frontal physical assault, with optional screaming in the ears. God knew how that dynamic would play out in therapy.
Interleaved between them, like two all-beef patties, were her son, Milo, who was ten, and his cousin Wyatt, who was six. They weren't really cousins, they were second cousins, or cousins once removed, or something. Wyatt's mother was Iris, who was actually Frances's cousin, but it was just easier to call the kids cousins and have done with it. Wyatt reveled in the riches of two mothers-his other one was an actress famous for being America's Honey. It wasn't a secret she was gay, it was just that America apparently didn't give a shit.
Right behind her-where she could reach back and hand them stuff at the traffic lights, which she often did-were her youngest child, Lally, and her neighbor Bill's son, Lucas, both of whom were four. It was a complicated carpool that had evolved over time. At first the various parents had tried to take turns driving, but as Frances had a kid at every school, it quickly became clear it was just easier if she did it. She preferred it; she was the only parent who wasn't "working" (let's not get into the atom splitting of who's doing more work, stay-at-home parents or not, let's just agree it's a shit show for all of us, and move on), so she wasn't trying to get anywhere herself, and often did the driving in pajamas. She also hated the feeling in the house just after the kids had screamed and yelled their way through getting ready-finding shoes and losing shoes, hunting down books and bags and hats and whatever, all of which they could have gotten ready the night before, not that she was making a point or anything-and had scrambled through the door and down the path to someone else's car . . . It made her feel like she'd been picked last for a team, or left behind at a train station, or like when she'd come home to an empty house after her own days at school. I want to go, too, her inner child cried, and her outer adult volunteered to do all the driving and everyone was happy.
The elementary kids got dropped off first, then Ava at her school, and then finally Lally and Lucas at the preschool, where they needed to be physically signed in. She would read a story, maybe two, then pause at the kissing window for a proper goodbye with optional pretending she couldn't see her kid . . . "Where's Lally? Oh, there she is!" Jesus, did they ever get tired of that? Then she was free. Free to go to the store. Free to go home. Free to drive headfirst into the nearest wall, which was what she might have done, if she didn't have to go back in three hours and pick up Lucas and Lally. Frances wondered how many other people were overwhelmed by anticlimax but kept plodding along, taking care of their kids, picking up juice box straws so animals wouldn't choke on them, collecting corks or buttons or whatever craft supply was needed, replacing the batteries in the smoke alarm as soon as the first ping of complaint was registered. Maybe this was what they meant by staying together for the children. It had nothing to do with marriage at all.
Frances pulled into the elementary school lot and Ava got out, sighing as if she were a fourteen-year-old Victorian child disembarking for her day down the mine. She pulled open the door and swung her arm wide.
"Medium-size children may now escape. Mind the gap, and watch out for speeding moms on cell phones."
The children had already unbuckled and piled out, high-fiving Ava as they passed her. Kate stopped, and Frances turned to see what was up. The little girl's face was a study in conflict.
"What's wrong, honey?"
Kate looked at Frances, and her chin wobbled.
"I left my toilet roll tubes at home."
"Oh." Frances looked at her eldest child. Ava shrugged, looking back inside the open minivan.
"They aren't in the car."
"Oh, OK." Frances smiled at Kate. "I'm sure the teacher will have lots of extras." She herself had, over time, sent in three thousand toilet roll tubes. For all she knew they were building a particle collider out of them, or an accurate re-creation of the New York subway system. Let's hope they didn't use the obvious choice for subway trains.
"No, I have to have my own ones." Kate's eyes were filling with tears, her shit-fit indicator was dropping to DEFCON 3. "It's for the class project. Everyone else will have them."
Frances weighed her options. On the one hand Kate was only six, and would not only survive but would forget the trauma of not having had toilet roll tubes. But on the other hand, she was a member of the Yakuza-esque organization known as Miss Lollio's First Grade Class, whose members fell on the weakest like wolves on a lamb. Forgetting to bring toilet roll tubes and having to borrow some was a Noticeable Event to be avoided at all costs. It wasn't on the level of peeing oneself, of course, it wasn't going to give rise to a nickname you couldn't shake until college, but it wasn't great.
"My mommy put them in a bag, but she forgot to give them to me." A note of accusatory steel had entered her voice. Frances gazed at the little angel, whose mother had been heard calling her Butterblossom. Kate's eyes had gone flat like a shark's. She knew she would get what she wanted, the only question was when. I am younger than you, old lady, her eyes said, and I will stand here until age makes you infirm, at which time I will push you down, crunch over your brittle bones, and get the toilet roll tubes I need.
"Alright, Kate. I'll go back and get them after I drop Ava, OK, and bring them back to school for you." Frances knew she was being played, but it was OK. She was softhearted, and she could live with that.
"Suckah . . ." Ava headed back to her seat, shaking her head over her mother's weakness, a weakness she loved to take advantage of herself.
"Thanks, Frances!" Kate beamed an enormous smile, turned, and ran off-the transformation from tremulous waif to bouncy cherub instantaneous. Behind her in the line of cars, someone tapped their horn. OK, the brief honk said, we waited while you dealt with whatever mini crisis was caused by your piss-poor parenting, because we're nice like that, but now you can get a move on because we, like everyone else in this line, have Shit to Do. Amazing how much a second of blaring horn can communicate.
Frances waved an apologetic hand out of the car window and pulled out of the gate.
She dropped the other kids and was back at Anne's house in a half hour. Having carpool duty wasn't the onerous task the other parents thought it was: All three schools were close to home, and all four families lived on the same block. As Frances ran up to Anne's door she looked over and saw her own cat, Carlton, watching her. She waved. He blinked and looked away, embarrassed for both of them.
She knocked softly on the door, but no one answered. Maybe Anne had gone back to sleep. She turned the handle and pushed open the door, peering around. Yup, there was the bag of toilet roll tubes. She grabbed it and was about to shut the door again when she saw Anne lying on the floor, her face turned away, her long hair spilling across the rug.
"Anne! Holy crap, are you OK?" But as she said it her brain started processing what she was really seeing. Anne, on the floor, check. But now she'd turned her head and Frances realized she was fine. In fact, she was better than fine. Frances had instinctively stepped over the sill and now she saw that Anne was naked, her face flushed, a man between her legs, his head below her waist.
"Shit . . ." Frances dropped her eyes, began to back out. "Sorry, Anne, Kate forgot her toilet roll tubes . . ." Stupidly she raised her hand with the Whole Foods bag in it because, of course, that would make it better, that she'd interrupted Anne and Charlie having a quickie on the living room floor. It was OK, because she was just here for the toilet roll tubes. Nothing to see here, move along.
The man realized something was wrong, finally, and raised his head, looking first at Anne and then turning to see what she was looking at, why her face was so pale when seconds before it had been so warmly flushed.
Frances was nearly through the door, it was closing fast, but not before she saw that it wasn't Charlie at all. It was someone else entirely.
Reading Group Guide
Readers guide forOther People’s Houses Discussion Questions
1. In this book the neighborhood plays an important role. What other situations create this kind of community, and how does seeing people every day change your relationship to them?
2. The central character, Frances Bloom, is someone who likes to help, because it makes her feel useful. Do you know someone like this? Do you find it easier to help or be helped?
3. Frances and Michael have a very happy but not very romantic marriage. Do you think that this will eventually drive them apart?
4. Anne Porter has an affair and nearly destroys her marriage. How important is sexual fidelity? Is it the most important element in a marriage? Can trust be rebuilt after a betrayal of this kind?
5. How much do children understand their parents’ marriage? How hard is it to maintain privacy in a relationship once you have children?
6. Sara and Iris are experiencing communication problems in their marriage, although it’s very strong. Have you gone through something similar, where communication breaks down for no apparent reason, and then becomes difficult to reopen?
7. Anne felt she was someone else in her affair, that it was something just for her. Ava also mentions a strong desire to be her own person, driving her own choices. How hard is it to balance a sense of self with responsibilities within a family?
8. Frances and Ava are navigating their changing relationship as Ava becomes more independent. Did you struggle against your parents or one parent in particular as you were becoming an adult? How do you think the experience of adolescence has changed since you were a teenager?
9. The title, Other People’s Houses, alludes to the impression one gets of someone just by looking at them. How much can you really tell about someone based on their home, or the way they dress? Is appearance an expression of character, or armor?
10. Bill and Julie Horton are dealing with a challenging time in a very private way. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of approaching it this way?